Ask any parent and the first moment of joy they wait for once they bring a child home is to hear them utter the first words. A parent uses cues from the baby’s sounds to know when they need to tend to them. We use the sounds of lullaby to soothe a baby into sleeping.
Voice is an integral part of our day to day life.
I was taking a 45km Uber ride one day. It was late, and I stay almost 10km beyond the end of all signs of civilisation. The driver wasn’t too thrilled to be going that way, but he chose to take the plunge — howsoever reluctantly. He asked me if I could hold on to my hat for a few minutes though. And then he fired up Whatsapp on his phone, opened a group and sent a couple of voice messages with his queries. “I am going to so and so place, what are the chances of getting a ride back from there at this hour?” “Is there a fuel station close to my drop off point” Within a few minutes, he had received at least 3–4 messages answering his queries. And that, that is the power of voice.
I can’t express in words how elated I felt on having witnessed it. Just a few days back, I was talking to a few friends, and I was telling them of some of the reasons why I think voice would be the next big trend in consumer products. Every other factor has been aligning up perfectly to make it happen. And here I was sitting there, just a few days after that conversation witnessing an example of one of my points.
Here is why it excited me so much:
#1. When it comes to voice, the language barrier is much lower as compared to written forms of communication.
The guy driving my Uber that evening was not the most well read one. From what I gathered from our short interaction, he didn’t stick around for much of his schooling. But he had been conversing with other humans right from the time he would have uttered his first words, isn’t it? So, communicating verbally was obviously the preferred choice for him.
And he is not alone. Around 20% of India is illiterate, and almost 25% of the global population is illiterate. That translates to a massive 250+ million people in India alone. But with the market laden with low-cost smartphones, and the ever falling data prices, the number of Indians with access to a smartphone and data plans on their handhelds is increasing with every passing day. While the country should target to improve the literacy numbers, doesn’t it make sense to give the online population better and more options of communicating?
Recently, I personally encountered a second example. The contractor working in my new home is a self made man, but he can just read and write to the extent that it helps him with his work. You ask him to hold his ground on text messages or whatsapp, and he will concede defeat. Now, he prefers to have conversations with his clients over calls, and I — being the lazy ass I am — hate attending calls. So how did he manage? He would leave me voice messages on whatsapp, I would listen to them when I got the chance to, and respond appropriately.
#2. Its fast, its effective, and there is nothing lost in translation
One of the problems with text messages, emails etc. is the language gap. Has it ever happened to you that you meant to convey a particular message, the recipient misinterpreted parts of your message and all of a sudden you have the two parties with completely different understanding of the matter at hand.
I am not saying these challenges and confusions don’t exist when it comes to voice communication, but the sheer number of occurrences would be on the lower side.
Not to mention — it’s bloody fast and efficient. I have friends — people who are supposed to be tech savvy — who would end up calling you for a quick call if the whatsapp chat extends beyond a few messages. Why?
It takes a lot of effort to type these long messages. Talking over a call is faster and easier.
Can’t argue with that now, can we?
#3. With the fast paced development we are seeing in NLP, AI and speech recognition etc, things look really bright.
Do you remember the keynote by Sundar Pichai where he gave us mere mortals a glimpse of a Google virtual assistant making hair appointments and dinner reservations for you? In case you don’t know what I am talking about, enjoy; and if you remember the video, what the hell — watch it again, it’s amazing.
The best part about this whole interaction was the fact that once the AI knew what is it you were looking for, it improvised its way through the conversation — just as a normal assistant would have. Now. This. This is what I see happening in the next few years. Not just for the tech savvy and the well read, well educated, affluent urban population, but for the general populace. I see AI enabling artisans at doing their jobs better, be able to do google searches, browse online catalogues, compare rates between different vendors by placing those calls in the background. The possibilities are practically endless.
#4. Communication joins us. And without the language barrier, think of all the conversations we could have.
I did not speak French when I was traveling to Paris for the first time, and the only phrases I learnt to get by were: “Do you speak English?” and “Hey, how are you. Could I ask for some help?”
Once I could speak French, the next trips were much smoother. I could practically talk to anyone I wanted, engage in interesting conversations with the wait staff at restaurants. They were much more happening trips as compared to my first one.
But, I don’t need to look that far to comprehend the language barrier.
1650 frigging languages in the same nation.
Now that is a challenge, and it proves itself to be a challenge to the lives of millions everyday who are working across the country in a city where the local language is nowhere close to what they grew up with. If you are booking a table and the person attending the calls at the restaurant doesn’t speak your language, he will go find someone who does before you can start having the discussion.
Imagine AI doing that for you. (There are other applications sure, I just chose one I had struggled with a few times.)
So far, startups and businesses have been content with catering to the English and Hindi speaking audience, primarily because of two reasons : (1) Most of the people in the big cities would speak at least one of these languages, (2) People with more purchasing power would speak English. So business runs as usual. But, the focus is shifting now. Businesses are realising the immense untapped potential the smaller towns and cities offer. They are also aware of the fact that soon the number of internet users comfortable with local dialects would collectively overshadow the number that prefers Hindi/English. And as such, I expect there to be big advancements on this front as well. AI applications not just aimed at the Hindi/English speaking population, but ones that will cater to hundreds of languages for people all over the world.
Forget Augmented Reality and chatbots. The real power is with voice — because it doesn’t need the users to make alterations to the natural fashion in which they have always communicated.
By speaking out their mind!